Jamie Goode’s warning to wine writers–and mine
The British blogger Jamie Goode has some very fine credentials when it comes to observations about wine writing. You can check out his resume here.
He certainly has enough experience under his belt to know what he’s talking about when he expresses meta-views on the state of–and threats to–wine journalism, which is why his post from the other days, “The coming wine war,” merits your attention. It is a sobering, informed and highly relevant take on the “clash of cultures in the world of fine wine.”
Jamie’s post is about Bordeaux in particular, but it could by analogy be extended to any fine wine region in the world and, in fact, to all of them, for they all are similar in the sort of behavior Jamie targets. Hear him: “Bordeaux will seek to protect its place – and wealth – by bringing its influence to bear where it can. Already it holds leading journalists close, through quite lavish hospitality and access to rare older vintages for the privileged few.” Sound familiar? He continues: “Some journalists have spotted where the money is, and for this reason have chosen to write extensively about Bordeaux. The top Châteaux’ sizeable advertising spend ensures that consumer wine magazines have a strong focus on the region. Perhaps these magazines will be discretely avoid giving coverage to the profoundly interesting (yet cash poor) terroiriste and natural wines, which come with zero advertising spend.”
Now, I can’t agree with all of what Jamie says. His devotion to “the emerging terroiriste/natural wine movement,” while romantic, is a little ideological, especially considering how difficult it is to identify who is a “terroiriste/natural” winemaker and who isn’t. I have repeatedly expressed my skepticism over those who make gushing, sighing sounds of passion for an ill-defined natural wine movement.
But Jamie is entirely correct to raise a jaundiced eyebrow when it comes to what seems like the increasing influence coming to bear on wine periodicals from the “haves” of the wine world–those with money to spend on advertising–as opposed to the have-nots. Good wine periodicals, and the good reporters who write for them, must forever be on guard to make sure the firewall that has traditionally existed between editorial and advertising remains wide and clear. If that firewall ever disappears, then Jamie’s fear could come true: “It would be a terrible shame, but it is not inconceivable that journalists may be forced to choose between writing what they would like to write, and following the money.”
Here in California, I’m less worried than Jamie about “lavish hospitality and access to rare older vintages” influencing wine writers in ways that would make them biased, or would persuade them to write about well-endowed cult wineries at the expense of a middle-class struggling winery that could not afford to put the writer up for the night in a “guest house” four times the size of my condo. California wine writers are a pretty wizened bunch. They’ve been around the block and aren’t about to be impressed by such glittering hospitality. Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, California’s late Speaker of the State Assembly, once famously remarked concerning lobbyists, “If you can’t take their money, drink their liquor, f**k their women, and then come in here the next day and vote against them, you don’t belong here,” i.e. the Legislature. I think any good wine writer feels the same way toward wealthy winery proprietors.
What I do worry about is newbies, who might be swept off their feet with bedazzlement at being wined and dined by the high and mighty. I’ve seen this a little bit among our own up and coming writers, including bloggers, but I think it’s far more prevalent among the Chinese wine writers who find themselves on Air France, on their way to Bordeaux, courtesy of Lafite or Bordeaux.com or whoever it is that pays for such junkets.
Finally, I share Jamie’s concern that rich wine companies, who underwrite wine education organizations with “generous sponsorship…could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine.” Such sponsorship could come “with implicit ‘strings’ attached” that persuade a cash-starved organization to slant their curriculum toward the donors. It’s not so far-fetched to imagine the Wines of Bordeaux (or of Napa Valley for that matter) forming alliances with educational bodies like WSET or the IMW and then expecting something in return for their generosity. As Jamie points out, this is less likely to become a major problem due to the rise of the wine blogosphere. But “eternal vigilence is the price of liberty” (Thomas Paine).